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|Many DSS caseworkers lacked experience when hired|
Carol Thompson 10-01-2008
by Carol Thompson
A typist, a fitness instructor, a gym teacher, a postal worker, and a debt collector all became caseworkers for the Oswego County Department of Social Services. Two others worked in the office of the District Attorney and one is the wife of the District Attorney.
The Valley News made the request for the applications and/or resumes of all caseworkers Aug. 22, 2008, one week before the death of 11-year-old Erin Maxwell.
State Police say Erin was found in deplorable conditions with bags of garbage on the porch and over a hundred cats living inside the home. Friday, Salvatore Lanza, the family’s attorney, produced the official death certificate that shows Erin died of asphyxia as the primary cause of death. Sexual trauma is listed as a contributing factor.
The child’s home had been visited by a caseworker in 2006 and reportedly twice in previous years. One resident has been said to have called agencies in more recent months and alleged that he was told that they cannot tell others how to live.
Since the time it was learned that DSS had visited the home, the department has come under fire from the public for not removing Erin from the deplorable conditions.
The name of the caseworker involved in the Maxwell case has not been released, not even to Legislature Chairman Barry Leemann, who said he has been given little information in regard to the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death.
The applications provided by the county indicate that while all caseworkers now have a college degree, one-half of them had no experience in human services or a related field when hired and several had only a minimal amount of experience when hired.
Others came to the department well qualified with experience from other social-service agencies and some were welfare examiners prior to taking the civil-service test for the caseworker position.
Caseworkers are hired to entry-level positions, according to information provided by the county, at a current pay rate of $18.83 per hour. In-service training is provided and they work under the general supervision of a senior caseworker.
In order to qualify for the civil-service test, an applicant must have a been graduated from a regionally accredited or New York State registered college or university with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology, social work, human services, or a closely related field; or graduation from a regionally accredited or New York State registered college or university with a bachelor’s degree including 30 credit hours in the behavioral sciences.
One applicant was graduated with a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology with the only work experience listed as that of the owner of a fast-food restaurant. Another applicant with a degree in English worked as a bank teller, as a mental-health counselor for an apartment treatment program, and three years as a paint-project advisor with the home-improvement store Chase-Pitkin prior to receiving employment with the county.
An applicant with college credit but no degree worked as a bill collector, an insurance agent, a forklift operator, and “ran a machine that paints the various wall accessories” prior to being hired as a caseworker. That application did list a two-month internship with the county probation department.
The caseworker exam does provide for a combination of education and experience.
According to Patty Familo of the county personnel office, there was a time when candidates could apply prior to finishing their required college course work. “Sometimes what we did was announce it conditionally,” she said. “You could apply if you were about to finish your degree.”
Some counties go beyond the state’s minimum qualifications and mandate a year of actual Social Service experience.
“We don’t do that,” Ms. Familo said. “If we wanted to and we had the candidate pool, we could raise the qualifications. We’ve never had such an overwhelming response that we’ve had the luxury to do that.”
Ms. Familo said that while she believes Oswego County requires qualifications that are higher than some, she acknowledged that there are those who may have qualifications that are higher than the county.
Leemann said the legislators do not get into the every-day operations of the Department of Social Services but added that it may warrant a further review.
“If there appears to be a problem, the legislators will have to look into it,” he said.
The Valley News requested the applications of all caseworkers based on another allegation from another person that DSS had failed to respond properly to situation similar to the Maxwell case.
In that matter, an infant was living in a cockroach-infested home with a dozen cats, a pit-bull, and a pet rat that was allowed to roam freely through the home.
The complainant was able to provide photographs of the living conditions as well as voice messages from hospital personnel who were assisting with efforts to remove the child from the home.
Although the complainant alleges that DSS refused to remove the child from the home, the father of the child, who resided in another county, was able to recently secure custody and the child is now living in a clean environment.